In trying times, a little optimism can go a long way. And a fun, upbeat and nostalgic slice of music can be delightfully transportative: especially when it comes from a band who, for long periods of the last two decades, seemed like they might never work together again.
Plone‘s 1999’s debut album For Beginner Piano was among the first wave of deliriously retro-futurist electronica to herald the dawning of a new and fascinating movement, and their friendship with fellow Birmingham-based pioneers Broadcast and Pram placed them at the centre of what felt like a very West Midlands-centric scene. But a mooted (and at least partially-recorded) 2001 follow-up never saw the light of day, and then everything went disappointingly quiet. Mike Johnston worked with the ZX Spectrum Orchestra and the Modified Toy Orchestra; Billy Bainbridge was a co-founder of the rather wonderful Seeland. And, according to Wikipedia, third member Mark Cancellara is now working as a “DJ and magician’s assistant”.
However, in 2020, Ghost Box Records casually announced that Johnston and Bainbridge were returning with a surprise, but utterly welcome, third instalment of the Plone saga. Or is it, officially, the second? It doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that the new album, Puzzlewood, is glorious. An utterly life-affirming collection of grin-inducing instrumentals that evoke delicious memories of vintage library music, of Test Card F on rainy Tuesday afternoons, of long-forgotten Childrens’ Film Foundation flicks and grainy teatime dramas about bird sanctuaries. I defy anyone to listen to the whole giddy confection without imagining exploding chemistry sets and pokey, street-corner sweetshops alike. It’s wonderful, and it comes – appropriately enough – in the kind of luridly colourful packaging only previously associated with Lolly Gobble Choc Bombs or Bazooka Joe’s Bubble Gum.
In late March 2020, I spoke with Mike and Billy live on my BBC Radio Tees show. It was a Wednesday night, and the plan had been to link up with them both live from their regular midweek meeting, but – two days into Coronavirus lockdown – that clearly wasn’t possible. Nevertheless, they were charming company and great fun. Here’s how the conversation went…
Bob: I thought it was really sweet that you said normally get together on a Wednesday night. But obviously you can’t right now! Is it a while since you’ve seen each other?
Mike: A couple of weeks now, I think?
Billy: Yeah, Mike was due to come round this evening, but we thought it was best if he stayed away…
The album is lovely. And I know you couldn’t have planned it this way, but it’s a very heartwarming, fun and upbeat album – just what we need at the moment. Was it always your plan to make such a positive-sounding album?
Mike: Yeah, it was. I think that’s at the heart of the Plone sound really, that optimism. And you know, circumstances have come around to a point where optimism can be quite useful!
It’s been twenty years since the last official Plone album. Had you always intended to reconvene at some point, or has this come slightly out of the blue?
Mike: I think the release feels like it’s come out of the blue, but we’ve been working on the album for quite a while. There was a patch after the second album when we didn’t work together for a while – for quite a while – and then we started working on this one in about 2011, something like that. Maybe even a bit earlier. And then we kind of slowed down… but then, a few years ago, we started up again, and started meeting up regularly on our Wednesday nights.
Billy: I think the Wednesday nights were a success really, weren’t they?
Mike: Yeah, we found the right day of the week, that’s what it was! The midweek hump is what we needed.
It breaks the week up, I guess! So some of these tracks do actually go back to 2011, then?
Mike: I think so, yeah. Actually, there are a couple from earlier that were left over at the end of the second album, from around 2001. A couple of tracks hanging around from then that we picked up again, and started working on.
You mentioned that second album, which has become something of a great “lost” album. So it was 1999 that your debut album For Beginner Piano came out..?
Billy: Yeah, 1999. I remember… (laughs)
It’s nice that you had to think about that for a while!
Billy: It’s a long time ago! In the last century…
Then there were rumours of that second album, but it’s never actually had an official release. Do you want to tell us the story in your own words of what happened?
Mike: (Laughs) Do we have to? Go on, Billy…
Billy: It was around 2001 that we delivered the album, and it kind of got rejected by Warp Records. And that was kind of when the band split up. So we didn’t really want to look at it, or listen to it, for some time, I think. It is a bit of a tragic story in that respect. But I think enough time has elapsed for us to feel that we could maybe put it out there.
I think the odd bootleg has emerged here and there, but really? There is now a possibility that it might get an official release?
Billy: We’ve remixed it and remastered it. There’s still a bit of work to do to pick the right mixes, that sort of stuff, but there is a general intention to do something with it.
You weren’t tempted to carry any of it over onto Puzzlewood at all?
Billy: Mmmm… no.
Mike: No! (Laughs). No, it was good working on something relatively new, I think. And not being in the shadow of an album that had been unreleased for so long. Which we kind of think of as an artifact rather than an album, because – when we handed it in – it wasn’t really finished. We just had to hand something in at the time. So what was actually going to go on the album hadn’t really been finalised. There were more tracks than were going to be released. So, as Billy says, we’ve spent a bit of time remastering it, bringing it all up to speed. And obviously technology has moved on a bit, and it’s possible to rework it into something that’s more like what we wanted at the time.
Honestly, I’d be intrigued and thrilled to hear it. As for Puzzlewood itself… I was going to ask about the the title, which is a famous area of woodland in Gloucestershire. Was it a location that particularly spoke to the pair of you?
Mike: I don’t think I’ve ever actually been to it! Not that I can remember.
Billy: As the name of a wood, it’s brilliant…
Mike: Yeah, but I’ve never been there. So it’s got an air of mystery…
I’ve never been there either, but I’m a huge Doctor Who fan, and I know it’s been used as a location!
Billy: Yeah, we didn’t find out about all this until after we’d come up with the title… (laughs)
So was it just a place name that you knew and thought was particularly appropriate for the album?
Mike: Yeah, it was more like that, really. I mean, we’d gone through a list of interesting place names that either one of us had been to. Also, we were just looking at… kind of rambling names. Interesting woods, or obscure bits of the countryside.
Can tell us what else was on the shortlist?
Mike: (Laughs) No!
Billy: Go on, Mike…
Mike: I can’t remember off the top of my head, but I’ve still got the list somewhere!
A list with a load of names crossed out, apart from – presumably – Puzzlewood at the bottom?
Mike: You can probably find out the list of names that I came up with by looking at a map of the West Midlands, and trying to find the most ridiculous or most interesting names. They’ll be on the list!
I’m always intrigued by track titles on instrumental albums, and I usually think there’s a story behind them. So there’s ‘Watson’s Telescope’ on Puzzlewood, and I’ve spent my afternoon googling around this! Watson & Sons were indeed British telescope manufacturers from the mid-19th century until the 1940s. Is that track a tip of the hat to them?
Mike: It’d be good to say yes at this point, wouldn’t it?
Billy: (Laughs) Yes! Just say yes!
Aw… I had this glorious mental image of one you both owning old Watson & Sons telescopes when you were kids. So is that just a random title again?
Mike: Yeah. But I’ll go with your story, Bob.
Billy: Yeah, we’ll start using that… (laughs)
Can I ask a little bit about the early days of Plone? You came out of Birmingham in the 1990s, and it was a time when other Midlands artists like Broadcast and Pram were experimenting with similarly retro-sounding electronica. Did it feel like you were part of a scene at the time?
Mike: I think we felt like we were amongst friends, which was kind of great. There were lots of gigs happening, and some good venues where local bands could play. So yeah, it did feel like a bit of a scene, and you know… Birmingham isn’t a huge place, so it’s kind of easy enough to bump into other bands.
Did you all know each other from the start, or did you start making this kind of music independently before realising that other artists at least had similar inspirations?
Mike: I would say that we started making music straight after moving to Birmingham, and then – through the music – met other people, at gigs and also at DJ nights. And gradually we met the other bands. I think, very quickly, we met Pram, and then Broadcast a bit later.
It felt like a really exciting time. I keep talking about this, but I remember the first time that I heard Boards of Canada – a track on called ‘Roygbiv’ on a free CD sellotaped to the front of the NME. About 1999. And it was a real watershed moment for me: “My God, other people have these feelings about my childhood! Those feelings of watching Programmes for Schools and Colleges on a rainy Tuesday afternoon with a slight temperature. It was revelatory moment to realise that other people were not just remembering these feelings, but actually taking inspiration from them…
Mike: Yeah, I’ve always had that rosy nostalgia for that kind of Schools Programming. I remember at school when the teacher would wheel out the television, or maybe even the VHS, and show us some programme or other, and I’d think: “Oh, thank God! We don’t have to listen to the teacher any more. We can watch telly, we’re good at that!
For bonus points, a television in a wooden cabinet…
Mike: Yes, exactly – probably locked.
Did all of that come with a love of library music as well, then? That really comes over in your work. I could never understand as a kid why the music that we heard on TV, with the test card for example, didn’t seem to be thought of as “proper” music…
Mike: Yeah, it was really good! It was kind of there without us thinking about it, or finding out about it… it was being put into our brains. But there was some pretty good stuff, and I suppose the Radiophonic Workshop kind of epitomises that sort of sound. But, as you say, there were also all those library records as well.
The Radiophonic Workshop weren’t even credited as individual musicians for a while! It must have made them all the more intriguing.
Mike: Yeah, it made it sound like the music was being made in a laboratory. Very mysterious.
Was it easy to get hold of the gear when you started out, then? All those analogue synths are worth a fortune now, but were people actually chucking them away in the mid-1990s?
Mike: Well, we used to go down to the music shops in Birmingham, and they would have all the latest 1990s gear set out. But in the corner of the room – or in a separate smaller room, shoved in the corner – were the analogue synths. Probably not the classic ones, but analogue nevertheless. And they were reasonably priced at the time. They hadn’t become cult items or anything like that. But of course… a lot of these synths didn’t have MIDI, which was the big watershed, really. It made them seem like they were useless, but they were far from that. They were very beautiful-sounding instruments.
Is there something really inspiring about working from a limited musical palette like that? You’ve been part of the ZX Spectrum Orchestra and the Modified Toy Orchestra, both making music using very simple computer chips and bits of old toys. Is there something about those limitations that can inspire a bit of creativity?
Mike: Yeah, definitely. I was more heavily involved with the ZX Spectrum Orchestra… with the Modified Toy Orchestra I was just playing live, really. But the ZX Spectrum Orchestra… that was a kind of deliberate attempt to eke as much as possible out of a very limited palette, yeah. I agreed to work on that project because I’d always really wanted to learn Machine Code programming! I have strange ambitions, and that was one of them…
There’s nothing wrong with a bit of Z80 Assembly Code. Let’s not be embarrassed about these things.
Mike: It’s on my CV… and has no real world application at all!
And how did the link with Ghost Box Records come about? It feels like a natural fit for you. Were Jim Jupp and Julian House people that you’d known for a long time?
Billy: I didn’t really know Jim until I sent the tracks off, really. But I was aware of the label, and a fan of the label, so I always thought they would be ideal if we were to release anything again. So we sent quite a few tracks off to them, and it was fairly straightforward, really. They loved the stuff.
The album has beautiful artwork by Julian House, too.
Billy: That’s right, he’s done a fantastic job with that.
I believe it’s based on the Jonny Trunk’s book Wrappers Delight, I think he took that as a bit of inspiration!
Mike: I love the colours on it…
And with that, we drifted into a conversation about the potential unavailability of the Puzzlewood vinyl during an ongoing lockdown situation, but – a month on – it’s a relief to report that the album is now available in physical and digital formats from:
And thanks to both Mike and Billy for a fun conversation, and – indeed – indulging my crackpot theories about the origins of their track titles. And I felt a little guilty about not getting around to discussing Seeland with Billy, so let me offer up this wonderful 2009 single as belated recompense: